By Kallacha Dubbi
Trivial Introduction: There is a growing political tension in Ethiopia. The tension is because of uprisings of the Oromo people, sometimes escorted by that of others, that have been intermittently engulfing Oromia over the last 3-4 years with steadily increasing intensity. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in the country. The tension is likely to lead to the collapse of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). EPRDF is a congregation of ethnic-based parties that have governed the country since 1991. At the top of the political power of this congregation is the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the one that created the cohort parties of EPRDF. The Tigrean population, which is represented by the TPLF, constitutes a little over 5% of the total Ethiopian population numbering about 100 million. The TPLF de facto ruled Ethiopia for over a quarter of a century, all the other ethnic parties of the EPRDF held nominal membership and semi-pseudo power in the EPRDF. The growing popular resistance against Tigrean domination and the ensuing pressure to oust the EPRDF, or more precisely the TPLF, is steering the country towards enormous danger that could lead to massive loss of life. There are several complex political scenarios at play that could influence the outcome for better or worse. The rise of the Amhara people is a key factor in attempting to unseat the TPLF. But Amhara political organizations have not yet joined the opposition forces. So, where are the Amhara organizations?
Where are the Amhara organizations?
The Amhara political establishment of the post-Derg Ethiopia has not yet asserted itself as a cohesive group of defined doctrine. The political leadership still vacillates between adopting Ethiopia as a foster child of the Amhara to benefit from a century-old cultural supremacy on one side, and assuming its true identity as a political partner in the ethnicized country on the other. The Amhara claim of pan-Ethiopian party with a non-ethnic posturing has enjoyed some sympathy among unionist Ethiopianists who have been defending a non-apparent threat on Ethiopian unity for decades. But pan-ethiopianism alone has not been able to galvanize a level of emotional support that ethnic politics has generated. This denial of Amhara political grouping while pushing Amhara agenda created an imbalance, in political terms, between Southern and Northern Ethiopia.
The Amharas don’t want to get organized as Amharas, but no one is ready to accept them as any other. Neither could the camouflaged claim of Ethiopianess exert sufficient recognition and respect on other ethnic groups to engage them in a meaningful and real politics. Recently, the South, particularly the Oromos have shown great stride to assert their rights, but the Amharas have not been able to organize more than a prosaic opposition to the TPLF. An organized presence of the second largest ethnic group in the country would have made a difference in fighting against the Tigrean domination and in transitional peace détente of some sort. It is time that we see a consolidated Amhara political front by that name. There is no indignity in organizing based on who one is; the shame kicks in when the organization stands for malicious agendas. An organized Amhara group by such name, with a progressive and clear agenda for mutual respect and equality, is an asset for peace and unity in Ethiopia.
Today, the traditionally well-organized Amhara elites, who never admitted that they served the Amhara superiority under the banner of Ethiopia of the 70s and 80s through the Emperor’s empire and the Derg’s military communism, are scattered to a level of futility. Their attempt to entice non-Amhara membership for a “national cause” and grandstand pan-Ethiopianism earned them only few ham-fisted and lost non-Amhara children who are rejected by their ethnic population. And yet the non-Amhara leaders among Amhara populace could garner no full support to be accepted by the Amharas who invited them home expecting the guest leaders would fulfill the same purpose that Habte-Giorgis and Gobana fulfilled in the 19th century. There is a new and modern political order, but Amhara elites still dispose with the same old tricks of harnessing an outdated model of TPLF’s OPDOs or Derg’s cadres to create a group among other groups who will promote a delusional vision on their behalf. On one side, they are ashamed of reducing themselves to Amharas which will diminish their psychological ownership of a much larger subjugated population. On the other, political realities of loss are tough, if not impossible, to comprehend.
Thus, a non-Amhara leader from Gurage or an astray Oromo can step in the vacuum of Amhara leadership that the Amhara scholars are too timid to fill. Any bankrupt political entity will be well-received by these pan-Ethiopian political organizations which, for all practical purposes, can be said are suffering from self-imposed ethnic identity crisis, as long as the received entity can be used to disguise the ethnic image of their organization. Today, unfortunately, there is no Amhara organization that other ethnic based organizations can negotiate with, even on the format of Ethiopian unity. Even in the thick of ethnic politics which built and supported Haile-Sellasie, and carried on with military feast by TPLF so much in the open, when Gambelas, Somalis, Sidamas, Oromos, etc. organized their ethnic population to defend their people against ethnic assault, Amhara politicians still wouldn’t admit the prevalence and necessity of ethnic politics in Ethiopia, at least as an imperative transitional solution. This may partly explain why the Amharas have not organized and joined the Oromos in the ongoing battle for democracy.
What is going on with OPDO?
Since its inception, the OPDO has undergone an evolutionary metamorphosis, and the transformation from within has caught the senior OPDOs by surprise. The transformation, in some sense, can be measured by the growing support of the rank and file members to the OLF, a support which seems in many cases stronger than to the very organization they formally belong to. The transformation also gave rise to three unevenly stratified subgroups within the OPDO: i) small in number who still believe in keeping the EPRDF at all cost, even if it means accepting the superiority of the TPLF. This group is apparently led by an ex-President of Oromia, but it also is comprised of many non-Oromo members of the OPDO who seem to be overwhelmed by the rising nationalism of their party peers; ii) this second group amasses those OPDO members who promote independent OPDO that can thrive even in the post-TPLF Oromia. The group is led by some of the popular OPDO leadership, and its priority is protection of its investment, political or otherwise; iii) the substantial number of the lower echelon of OPDO most of who joined OPDO for other motives than political conviction, or, are too young to shoulder political loyalty to a party they grew observing as a marionette. This group is willing to delete OPDO from Oromo political discourse past and future as a historical scorn.
The TPLF is aware that it has lost favors in all but the first subgroup of OPDO, but it continues working on a salient machination to retain what can best be preserved through the second group. TPLF’s view of OPDO has, therefore, almost been reduced to how it treats and how it is treated by Abbaa Duula. A love-hate relationship seems to have brewing between TPLF and Abbaa Duula et co. It is known that the TPLF will have no control in Oromia without OPDO’s support and guidance, but then they may be losing control, literally and figuratively, even with OPDO’s support. With Muktar marginalized, if the only possible link with OPDO through Abbaa Duula is disrupted, TPLF has no remaining option but military invasion if it still decides to occupy Oromia by sheer force. The repeat invasion without OPDO’s support could be bloody and costly – perhaps a total military intervention spelling the end of OPDO. This explains the recent strong objection of OPDO to the peaceful Oromo student demonstrations. Officials of the last two OPDO subgroups listed above are concerned that the peaceful demonstrations will provide a pretext for TPLF to unleash a military intervention, and that this may result in unnecessary loss of life. It seems that the OPDO and the OLF have some level of tacit understanding on this matter, at least to avoid demonstrating in places of large Agazi concentration. However, there is a large debate among Oromo activists at home to understand the strategic value of pausing the demonstrations as if something is to arrive, unless a total abandonment of demonstrations is on the table. In the end, it is very difficult and more likely impossible even for the leaders to stop a revolution whose days have come.
On the other hand, many argue that the calm (harka xaxatanii taa’uun) only postpones the misery, it doesn’t sway the TPLF either way. For example, just today, the Agazi used a minor incident in Ambo to justify a massive intervention during which it arrested and killed a large number of people. The TPLF could expand this police intervention to armed occupation if it wants to. Or, it can kill some neighboring ethnic groups and then blame it on insurgent Oromos to justify army interference. This has been seen time and again. Yes, a subtle objection has emerged within TPLF objecting to a forceful occupation of Oromia as a violation of EPRDF’s entreaties, or as a prelude for bloodshed. Will this provide enough ground for hope, and ask for a slowdown of the demonstration, it is hard to tell.
What then is the purpose of objecting the peaceful demonstrations which remain the minimum and almost benign action towards freedom? What would a “more organized” and larger Oromo protest do to stop the TPLF onslaught which will simply see more people as more targets? These questions must be debated and answered if the decision to stop peaceful demonstrations is to hold even temporarily. The decision to halt demonstrations rather seems to be based on trusting OPDO’s assessment.
As a footnote, it is worth mentioning about some rumors that some international mediators have contacted some leading political groups to talk about peace and transition. This may form part of the block of reasons for the reason to pause demonstrations. It contrasts TPLF’s instigation of conflicts among ethnic groups while the pause for demonstration is entertained. The skirmish within OPDO is also flavored by a growing influence of the Pentecostal church to which many of the top OPDO leaders belong. We will return to this important issue of church and politics, including the interlinks among settled anti-OLF posturing of some OPDO officials, at another time.
As implied above, the current political situation in Ethiopia carries significant unknown variables. The TPLF still has a dominant military power, and they seem to have a backup plan, too. They have moved the Ethiopian air force to Mekele. A modern military college, one of the largest in the continent is also at Mekele handling logistics, communication, explosives, etc. The country’s largest military garrison of tanks, artillery, etc. is stationed between Wuqro (Klet Awulalo) and Abraha WeAsbaha. The TPLF also boasts it has started manufacturing guns and ammunition for export. Simply put, Ethiopia’s defense armament has moved to Tigray almost in its entirety. To escape from potentially sandwiched territory between unfriendly Eritrea and Ethiopia, TPLF has grabbed a land from Begemdir facilitating a direct exit to a friendly Sudan. Sudan’s Al-Bahsir is a regular attendee of the yearly festival of TPLF’s anniversary in Mekelle. TPLF also works on weakening Ethiopia by creating inter-ethnic conflicts. Clearly, a weakened Ethiopia infested with inter-ethnic clashes per TPLF’s ongoing design, cannot be a threat to a well-defended Tigray with its accumulated wealth and war machinery. This is the backup plan, a plan which may be a primary plan if the bloodshed continues and the TPLF leadership loses confidence, because of the massive bloodshed it has caused, in living at peace in post-TPLF Ethiopia. Complicating the chance for peace, this confidence has already been seriously compromised and even lost among the majority of TPLF’s leadership.
The preferred plan is to extend their rule over the entire country, perhaps even negotiate a political settlement par 1991 whereby they will continue to be a dominant force of the government. Alternately, a military takeover could be concocted by TPLF, and there is a talk of an Oromo General to lead the takeover, but without giving up control of the government. This option, which may undermine the entire camp of OPDO is unlikely to calm down the situation, and redressing the wolf may in fact backfire. The tide of total opposition to EPRDF is likely to make this and any other machination of TPLF implausible, but they are working at it.
Ethiopia is at a cross-road and it is impossible to tell where it is headed. There is a sense of anxiety behind which is a sense of optimism for a better future. There is a danger, possibly a devastating civil unrest looming over the horizon. The intensity of this looming danger by and large depends on the TPLF’s action, its readiness to relinquish its domination of the Ethiopian people. Obviously, there should be no senseless loss of life. In fact, young lives and life in general must be cherished and protected. However, if life is lost because of peaceful demonstration, the killers are the ones who are responsible, not those who demanded their God given right peacefully. History bears witness that dictators don’t relinquish power willfully. We get what we fight for. In this sense, demonstration should not be demoralized, in fact, it should be heralded especially when it is peaceful.
The Oromo political organizations should respect each other’s field of engagement. Those who prefer to pray and preach are welcome to seek freedom and peace in their own fashion. Those who prefer fighting as a legal opposition are heroes many of who linger in TPLF’s jails, and we should support them in any way we can. Those who raised arms carry the light at the end of the tunnel, they are the backup of the Oromo struggle, the guarantors on whose lives rest the freedom of our people. We must respect and support them despite their weaknesses and shortcomings. The media, OMN, ONN, the radios, and substantial number of popular Facebook can channel their positive energy towards liberating our people instead of wasting time and energy on belittling each other or promoting each other at the cost of others. Tolerating each other is the sign of our greatness. Of course, as great people, we have our thieves, robbers, liars, etc. They too have the right to live among us, we don’t have to accept their will, but we don’t have to demean them either because when we belittle each other in large numbers, we lose our collective sanity.
Lastly, much of what is to come in Oromia and Ethiopia depends on the willingness of the TPLF to accept commonsense, and its readiness to allow a democratic transition without delay. We should be ready to rise again united if the TPLF refuses accepting this commonsense; and silence is welcome before the next storm.